Interview: Entomophagy and The Gateway Bug

The Gateway BugPremiering at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, The Gateway Bug is likely to take many viewers out of their comfort zone as it ventures into the brave new world of entomophagy, also known as insect eating. As the world’s population continues to grow and food sustainability becomes an increasingly important issue, this impressive new documentary from filmmaking duo Johanna B. Kelly and Cameron Marshad explores the huge potential of insect farming.

By all accounts, the burgeoning bug industry offers a far more environmentally friendly supply of protein than traditional animal farming. And given that over two billion human beings regard the eating of insects to be a relatively normal practice, there’s a pretty strong argument that the west should be eating less steak and more roasted crickets. That’s exactly the case made by Kelly and Marshad as they explore the science, politics and taboos of entomophagy.

I was lucky enough to talk to the brains behind The Gateway Bug before it screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival this weekend.

Congratulations on The Gateway Bug – it’s an amazing primer on entomophagy. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your backgrounds as filmmakers and how you both came to work together?

Johanna: Thanks! Neither of us went to film school, which I think is quite common in the industry. In the indie film world anyway. I’m Australian. I’ve got a master’s of interior design and I was an exhibition designer at the NGV for six years before I moved to America.

I moved here it because I wanted to get into filmmaking. I knew a bunch of filmmakers over here and it seemed a lot easier to get up and get started in such a big industry where there are so many jobs flying around. The Australian industry was kind of terrifying to me. It seemed quite cliquey and I didn’t know anybody.

So I was hired as a production designer. That’s what I usually do. I’ve done seven features now as production designer and music videos and commercials. I used my background and experience as a designer to make that transition.

Cameron: The last five years I’ve been freelancing as a shooter, editor and producer for documentary, short form documentary, and web video. Joanna and I met on the set of Like Lambs, it’s an indie feature that was shot on location in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.

Johanna: It was produced by John Kassab another Australian filmmaker working over here in America.

For those who are entirely new to this subject, what is The Gateway Bug really about?

Cameron: We cover a few different topics but I like to think of it as opening up people’s eyes as to how they define food.

Johanna: It’s a film about sustainability and how individuals can learn to change daily habits that can really change the planet. This film really empowers viewers with the knowledge to take matters into their own hands, and really start changing the impact they are personally having on the environment.

When we got into this, we were not aware of the huge impact diet has on environment. We all hear about transport and pollution and that kind of thing, but we don’t understand that a lot of that pollution is coming from our diets. It’s coming from the industrialised agriculture system.

How did you both become involved in this particular project?

Cameron: My friend from college, we visited him at UCSB, which is the University of California Santa Barbara. We decided to have brunch with him just to catch up. He’s a marine biologist, his name is Tyler Isaac, and he was telling us about his eco-entrepreneurship thesis programme. His master’s degree.

He went on to discuss how he had to solve an ecological problem through a business idea. And the business idea that he came up with was using crickets to feed farmed fish.

We’re really over fishing our oceans and we’re taking a lot of feeder fish out, like sardines and anchovies for example, and we’re feeding them to farmed fish. We’re feeding them to cows and pigs and humans as well, but mostly to animals that humans then eat.

So he was like, “Wait, this is kind of backwards. Why are we taking wild fish out of the oceans to feed farmed fish?” He decided to look at insects as an alternative. When you take a look at fish jumping out of the water, they’re going for flies. They’re going for bugs. When you look at chickens pecking down at the ground, they’re interested in worms and bugs.

Johanna: And so after having a brunch with him and he described all of this to us, we were fascinated. But he told us that it didn’t have to just apply to animal or pet feed – which his research was focused on – there are people trying to change human feed as well. By the end of brunch, we had decided that we had to make a documentary.

Andrew Zimmern in The Gateway Bug

Andrew Zimmern in The Gateway Bug

And how long did it take to make the film?

Johanna: After that brunch, we went back to New York. We put together a game plan. Having never made a documentary film before, it was very, very loose. Our plan was basically to interview Tyler. He said he could introduce us to a couple of people. We did a bunch of research on Google.

As you saw, we also got the head of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from the USDA. We literally looked him up, found his email, emailed him, and they granted us access. So it really was a lot of investigative work and good old indie filmmaking.

The two of us did everything. Cameron shot and did a lot of the sound, and I directed and did the art direction and was the interviewer. We would squeeze these interviews in between the other films we were working on. So I would finish a feature film and we would have an interview scheduled a few days later.

We’d hop on a plane or get in car, go for miles and miles to this one person to talk for an hour or two. Then we’d back to New York, and get onto another job that actually payed. Do that job, finish up, go do the next interview.

We spent about a year doing the interviews and then we started editing. About four or five months in, everything happened. We don’t want to give it away, but a bunch of big changes happened and we were like, “Wow.” We’d been struggling with how to end the film, but now we knew.

So we hopped back in the car and drove back out, did follow-up interviews with people to conclude their stories in an interesting and up to date way. There was another few months editing. Basically within two years from start to finish, we’re at the world premiere in Santa Barbara.

On your website you link to an article that suggests that eating insects or crickets offers a better outcome for animals than veganism or vegetarianism. I thought that was a pretty interesting point.

Johanna: Yeah. I really was impressed when we started making this film with how many vegans and vegetarians said they would actually entertain the idea of eating bugs. Usually vegans are known as being quite militant about their beliefs.

But the reality of the situation is there’s actually not enough land on earth to produce enough vegetables and fruit for humans. What we really have is a population problem, but it is what it is. At the current rate of growth, we have to start looking at ways to feed these people that are actually reasonable, not Soylent Green!

And bugs are one of the most nutritious options we have. They’re very easy to farm, they use far less resources than traditional protein sources, and they’re full of everything humans and animals need to function.

At one point you highlight the fact that over two billion people on earth eat insects. So what is it that seems so strange to us as westerners? What’s the barrier that we have to get past?

Cameron: We explore this in the film and through our interviews. There’s a huge disconnect between where the food is raised and created, and where it’s eaten and the form in which it’s eaten. Take a look at hamburgers and chicken nuggets. People are very comfortable with eating things that don’t have a face. Take a look at sushi. You don’t see the face of the fish. It’s a nice beautiful roll of rice and seaweed and vegetables and it’s extremely delicious. People are afraid to eat what they can see.

Johanna: Yeah, I think that people are really put off by seeing a head or seeing eyeballs. That’s something that’s talked about a lot in the entomophagy community. We don’t call pigs pigs. It’s pork or it’s ham. We call cows beef. And there is a huge yuck factor in western culture surrounding the eating of bugs.

At the screenings we’ve had in various film festivals across America, seven out of ten people, despite buying tickets to see our film, are not interested in eating bugs. Usually at the beginning of the screening, we share bugs with our audience. We’ll be doing that at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Then at the end of the screening, we share bugs with our audience again.

Thirty percent of the audience won’t even look at the items we’re serving before the film. And I’m just talking about protein bars or dry roasted crickets or mealworms. But then by the end of the film, I’m really happy to say just about everybody gives it a go.

In Maine, on the east coast of America, lobster used to be considered a really disgusting food that people shouldn’t have to eat. There was a law that prisoners could only be served it three times a week. Now it’s one of the most celebrated foods that we have. It’s funny to watch how attitudes shift. I think in the last 50 years, attitudes have actually made huge shifts towards heavily processed foods being an acceptable food source.

Is that a part of the problem? We’ve redefined our attitude to food in a way that is not in our best interest?

Johanna: In our film, we see people talking about growing up only associating tomatoes with ketchup. They literally haven’t seen a tomato because of the food desert problems they have here.

In America a food desert is defined as anywhere you have to walk over a mile to reach a grocery store selling fresh food. It’s disturbingly common over here.

You have people living in towns that haven’t seen a supermarket in 20 to 50 years. Their only accessible food is fast food places and gas stations. They eat whatever is available to them. Most of those people are the working poor. They’re working full time and they don’t have two hours to drive to the next town to the grocery store to get what are considered very expensive groceries when there’s a burger place at the end of their block charging 95 cents for a meal.

You interview a huge number of very interesting and very intelligent people in The Gateway Bug, but I think the person that Australian’s are most likely to recognise is Andrew Zimmern. His Bizarre Foods show has screened on Australian television. How did you manage to get him?

Johanna: Yeah. Andrew Zimmern’s show is actually in over 35 countries around the world so he tends to be the most well known person anywhere we screen. He’s a really big character and a popular guy. We were lucky enough to have a contact who knew a contact who could put us in touch with him. He’s just a very generous man.

We made this film with our own equipment and money and Kickstarter funded our postproduction. But during production what that meant was driving insane distances. So Andrew Zimmern lives in Minneapolis and he was like, “Look, I can give you an hour of my time in Minneapolis.” So we drove up to Minneapolis from New York. t’s a good 18-hour drive!

He saw it when we took it to the Minneapolis film festival and he really enjoyed it. We got to sit with him and he was like, “That’s brilliant. A brilliant film, guys. Well done.” It took a long time to make this film, so that was a good ending for us.

When people see this film, what do you want them to take away from it?

Cameron: Generally I think to seek a greater understanding of the food they eat and the impact it has on their environment locally and globally.

Johanna: And in really practical terms, we’re saying eat less red meat, use the food that you’ve bought at the grocery store, be mindful when you’re grocery shopping. Make sure you’re not buying a week’s worth of food when it’s unlikely you’re going to be eating three meals a day, seven days a week at home.

Every time you’re in a restaurant, the food you eat impacts what the chef decides to prepare the following week and what they buy at the grocery store too. Every single meal you eat has an impact.

And the all-important question… what’s the best tasting bug of all?

Cameron: Ha. There are so many and we’re really only cracking the surface with crickets as it were, the gateway bug. But there are so many like mealworms and tobacco hornworms.

I think the tastiest thing I’ve had, which may be a bit disgusting for the uninitiated, is black soldier fly purged fat. It’s a bi-product of drying and roasting and grinding up black soldier fly larvae. It’s almost like ghee or a clarified butter.

Johanna: But in Australia they’ve been doing some great work with things like tyrant ants, mealworms and crickets. We’re having an insect tasting at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival screening. Butterfly Sky, who are based in Sydney, are suppling the event.

We heard great things about the pop-up restaurant Noma Australia where they were serving bugs. Jethro Canteen in Melbourne has been serving bugs. It seems like it’s hitting Australia at the same pace as America in terms of accessibility, which is great.

So what’s next for the both of you now that you’ve completed this film?

Johanna: We’ve got a couple of docs in the works. We’re back in the research and development phase. I think that once you start making documentary films, it’s really hard to stop. It’s a really fun process.

It’s one part investigator, one part storyteller, one part traveller. You get to meet so many different people who are willing to let you just ask a thousand questions. And for curious people like ourselves, that’s kind of heaven.

Tickets to see The Gateway Bug at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival are now available.

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

One thought on “Interview: Entomophagy and The Gateway Bug

  1. A very interesting film on a subject that is currently a hot topic. I can’t stand the idea of eating insects myself, and shied away from crickets and scorpions when I visited China. But if they can make them appear to be palatable (I have seen blackfly patties that look like burgers…) then it may well be the answer to the world food crisis.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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